Ontario’s proposed (and flawed) cell phone law

Banning hand-held phones while driving is a lemon of an idea.

The Ontario Liberal government has introduced new legislation to ban the use of hand-held devices to talk, e-mail or send text messages while driving. Hands-free devices are not covered by the proposed legislation. Ontario wouldn’t be the first jurisdiction to try this kind of thing; indeed, the idea is, generally, quite mundane.

There’s only one problem:

“Using either a hand-held or hands-free cell phone while driving makes it four times more likely that you will be involved in a collision.”

This comes from a site Motorists and Cellular Phones, which is run by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.

The Ministry seems quite clear here: hands-free devices are just as dangerous as hand-held devices. This makes a great deal of sense. The kinds of accidents were talking about are those caused by distracted drivers. The distraction is partly caused by dialling a number (or working a GPS unit, or thumbing through your To Do items on your PDA), but how long does that take compared to the actual phone call?

You’re distracted from driving when you’re on the phone because your brain is time-sharing between the phone conversation and the road and traffic. I don’t have figures for this, but I would bet that the average cell-phone call (while driving) lasts longer than the act of dialling the number. The odds of getting into an accident increase with the duration of the driver’s inattention. So it is reasonable to assume that the phone conversation itself is the cause of more accidents than the actual dialling. Speed dial just lessens the amount of time spent dialling – and thus the probability of an accident.

So banning hand-held devices is rather pointless, it seems, because whether the phone is hand-held or hand-free, the conversation will still happen.

And it seems that the Ministry of Transportation already knows this.

So why is Queen’s Park ignoring its own expertise?

And how would such legislation be enforced? After all, certain calls – emergency 911 calls for example – are exempt from the proposed ban. A police officer outside your car will have to find reasonable cause (e.g. his seeing you talking on the phone while driving) before pulling you over. How will the cop know whether you’re calling 911 or just your Aunt Sadie?

The politicians – because they’re not designers – are not thinking straight. They’re looking for a political solution. Political decisions serve only the needs of politicians. This kind of partial ban is un-enforceable, and runs contrary to information the government already has about the matter of “talking and driving.”

If you do not ban all e-device use by drivers, then you need a way to tell the legitimate calls from the rest. The obvious (electronic) ways are brittle and prone to failure. For example, you could load up the automobile with a selective electronic jamming device. If the device senses a illegitimate phone call from the driver’s seat area, it jams the call. This isn’t impossible. But this would be a necessarily complex system, and complex things break down more easily than simple things. And there’s the cost of developing, mandating, and installing these things in all cars.

And this kind of solution does nothing to stop people from using PDAs as standalone devices – as when someone checks their appointments, say.

There are other ways: my favourite is to have the government pay for every driver to get a suitable hands-free rig for their cell phone. This should be combined with some interesting public service announcements – like the really cool workplace safety advertisements that have been airing in Ontario as part of the prevent-it program, as well as consumer information ranking the various hands-free rigs with respect to cost, usability, safety, etc.

Then you wait a year, for people to get used to the new way of doing things. And then you ban hand-held cell phone use (at least for drivers of cars with Ontario plates). I expect people will be far less likely to get their buns in a snit.

There’s probably a number of other approaches to dealing with this that I haven’t yet thought of. And probably every one of them would be better than just tossing out this virtually useless piece of legislation. Having a group of designers and other specialists sit down to sort all this out would be the best way to decide once and for all what would work best in Ontario.

But that would be the designerly thing to do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s